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Column: Arming Teachers Is Not the Solution



For the Valley News
Saturday, April 14, 2018

On Wednesday, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, a gun-owning Republican, took a politically courageous stand and signed three bills that will help reduce gun violence in the state. But not every proposal to address gun violence has been well thought out, and they sometimes ignore evidence to the contrary.

For example, in the wake of the recent Parkland, Fla., school shooting, the idea of arming teachers was again proposed by the National Rifle Association. David Thweatt, who supervises the Harrold Independent School District in Harrold, Texas, discussed his district’s decision to do just that in a Washington Post op-ed column that appeared in the Valley News (“I’m a Superintendent. My School District Decided to Arm Teachers,” March 26).

Gun violence in America is a public health crisis, with more than 30,000 Americans losing their lives annually. Mass shootings — generally defined as more than four individuals killed or injured, not including the shooter — are less common than the daily gun carnage that takes place around the country and so don’t contribute greatly to the absolute annual number of gun fatalities and injuries.

But the problem goes beyond those raw numbers. In 2015, more than 85,000 Americans suffered non-fatal gunshot injuries and countless family, friends and community members endure chronic emotional trauma as a result of gun violence.

The causes of gun violence are many, and the problem doesn’t lend itself to simple solutions. The public health approach, with systematic data collection, has four components: determining what the problem is; finding the causes; seeing what interventions work; and implementing and continuously evaluating policies and programs developed in response.

Superintendent Thweatt’s school district is located in a rural area near the Texas-Oklahoma border. In 2006, following the Pennsylvania Nickel Mines school shooting, the district decided to allow certain faculty and staff to carry concealed firearms. The identity of these “Guardians” is confidential and they are paid a yearly stipend.

It appears, however, that Thweatt and his district are working in a data-free zone, and it is unclear what evidence he and the district looked at to arrive at the decision to arm teachers. There is not a school shooting situation that I am aware of in which an armed teacher was shown to be an effective deterrent.

The Florida school shooting, and the March 20 shooting at Great Mills High School in Maryland, resulted in mixed reviews regarding the onsite armed resource officers. In the Florida incident, the officers failed to engage the assailant. In the Maryland shooting, the assailant was injured by the armed monitor but then took his own life.

A Washington Post analysis found that gun violence has occurred in at least 68 schools that employ a police officer or security guard. In all but a few of those incidents, the shootings ended before law enforcement of any kind interceded.

Thweatt and his district made some assumptions in their decision to arm teachers.

First, they assumed that assailants act rationally and the knowledge that someone in the school will be armed will be an adequate deterrent. That didn’t apply to the Florida or Maryland shootings. Both assailants knew the school had armed monitors. In the Parkland case, the assailant actually started his rampage before he even entered the building.

Thweatt and his district also assumed that the level of competence for armed teachers is going to be consistent and, with hope, superior to professional law enforcement officers. How will they maintain their competence? Will they all be able to respond under pressure in a real event?

We know that even professional police officers have discharged their firearms improperly and, in the “heat of battle,” injured innocent bystanders. It is hard to imagine that a teacher with a handgun, no matter how well trained, will be able to stand up against an assailant with an AR-15.

So, are there policies — with evidence to back them up — that can be put in place to address this problem?

Yes.

Reinstating a stronger version of the 1994 assault weapons ban and decreasing the magazine size on assault-style weapons (what the NRA calls “modern sporting rifles”) would decrease the number of deaths and injuries in mass shooting incidents.

Raising the age to 21 in order to purchase any firearm, along with instituting child-access protection laws to assure safe storage of firearms, will help prevent children and adolescents from obtaining access to firearms.

These laws would not only have an effect on mass shootings, but also suicides, and unintentional deaths and injuries.

We also need to do the best we can to keep firearms out of the hands of individuals who are a danger to themselves or others, tighten up the background check system, and institute a longer waiting period before purchasing a weapon.

We need to push back against the NRA’s claim that the purpose of sensible gun safety legislation is to confiscate the firearms of law-abiding citizens. Both the U.S. and the Vermont constitution assure citizens the right to “bear arms” for protection and sport. So let’s move on.

We need also to push back against the NRA’s delusional contention that possessing firearms is necessary as protection against a tyrannical state. The best defense against a state gone amok is the ballot box, not a gun.

We need sensible gun legislation. I would hope sensible gun owners, along with individuals who chose not to possess a firearm, can come together and help reduce firearm violence in our society.

Arming teachers is not the solution, and has a significant chance of realizing some horrible, unintended consequences.

Paul Manganiello, of Norwich, is a physician and president of the GunSenseVT Education Fund.